The pandemic and remote work changed the definition of an effective onboarding process.
In the past, a new employee would show up on their first day and get thrown into the mix. They might go through a few organized sit-downs with managers, financial controllers, or a department head to get them up to speed, but for the most part, they would learn by watching. They would sit in on meetings and pick up on the energy of the room, the way people would communicate, and eventually jump in themselves.
Well, in a world of remote employees and distributed workforces, how do you learn by watching?
I, like many other business owners, have learned over the past year or so that onboarding digitally is a very different experience than onboarding in-person—not just for the new employees, but for the existing team members who are already working within the company. It’s a different way of building relationships, collaborating, and working together, and requires its own intentional thought on how to do it well.
While we’re all still figuring this out together, and things continue to evolve, there are a few things that are especially useful for creating an authentic onboarding process that matches your company culture.
1. Start with the interview
Your new employee’s “onboarding” process actually began the very first time they spoke to you or someone at your company.
This was their introduction to your “culture.”
If you showed up late, they noticed. If you showed up on Zoom wearing a suit, they noticed. If they talked to a manager within the company, and that manager was especially nice, or unusually rude, they noticed. If communication was fluid and easy, or if it was slow and disjointed, they noticed.
As every business owner knows, one of the challenges of remote hiring is that it’s hard to get a sense of what someone will be like once they come on board. We had this happen recently, where in the interview process the employee seemed like a good fit; and then when they came on board, both parties immediately realized this wasn’t a good fit after all.
The solution here is that you must be very specific about what your culture is like beginning with the first interview. Try to give them a true sense of what a day of their role would look like. Try to walk them through some of the problems they could expect to encounter, and talk with them about how they feel about those challenges.
Don’t wait for them to start onboarding before you give them a sense of the company’s culture.
2. Aim to create partnerships over processes
Especially if you are a company of five, ten, twenty people, your onboarding process will never be (and should never be) the same as a company with ten or twenty thousand people.
They’re totally different environments and there are reasons that people choose to work in a small, entrepreneurial company versus a large corporation.
Something we have found to be beneficial is pairing new hires with senior employees who can act as mentors. This gives the new hire someone they can go to for questions, but more importantly, it gives them a way to feel comfortable and included. And, it shows them clearly, from the beginning, that someone’s paying attention and keeping tabs on them (in a good way).
We all know the feeling of joining a new company, and those first few days, weeks, even months, can be difficult. You feel uneasy asking stupid questions like where something is or whether it’s OK to email so-and-so directly. You also feel a bit left in the dark on what you don’t know you don’t know.
A mentor gives you a starting place and reassurance that you have a path forward.
With these types of partnerships in place, you can structure your formal onboarding process around those relationships in a productive, engaged, and intentional way.
3. Consciously eliminate confusion
An employee handbook isn’t enough. In fact, do people even read employee handbooks?
Being effectively onboarded into an organization is all about communication: how you communicate the inner workings of the company, how you communicate standards and expectations, etc. Furthermore, how you communicate sends a signal as to how the new hire should communicate. If your onboarding materials are disorganized, the new hire is going to see that and learn that level of disorganization is acceptable. Or, if your onboarding materials are vague and confusing, they’re going to learn that lesser level of specificity is acceptable.
The key here is to be conscious of exactly what information you are presenting, when, and why.
- What is the real goal of this onboarding document? Do we need it?
- Are we proactively answering the new hire’s questions? What questions might they have that we aren’t addressing soon enough?
- Where does the new hire go if/when they have questions along the way? How do we help them not get onboarded “in a vacuum?”
By the way, it’s not about being perfect—figuring these pieces out is often trial by fire, and we learn as we go.
4. Strive for humanity every step of the way
One of the biggest benefits of a digital-first approach to work is the amount of freedom it unlocks. Freedom to hire people from anywhere in the country (or world). Freedom to work in different time zones. Freedom to work while traveling. And so on.
The problem, however, is that digital-first work also means relationships and human interaction have to be scheduled.
In an office, you get to know your coworkers simply because of proximity: you share the same tables, you see each other in the kitchen, you end up in the same meeting, and so on. In a digital workplace environment, these moments of serendipity are lost—which means when you are onboarding a new employee, you need to be even more intentional about how you introduce this new person to all the other people in your company.
5. Prioritize both scheduled and unscheduled check-ins
Building on the above, a good way of ensuring humanity is at the center of your company culture is finding a balance between structured interactions and unstructured interactions.
In terms of onboarding a new employee, structure time to answer questions, introduce them to other team members, or walk them through client materials is priority number one. There needs to be time on the calendar so they know what to expect in terms of getting up to speed.
There also should be moments where you (the founder/owner) and other employees spontaneously reach out and interact directly. These moments of serendipity are everyday occurrences in a physical office. When working remotely, we have to work a bit harder to engineer them—which means they need to be treated as a priority as well. Send a few extra check-in emails to the new hires or, better yet, pick up the phone and ask how things are going. Again, show you’re paying attention.
Find ways to build relationships early on so new team members feel they’re part of something and that people in the organization actually care about each other.
All in all, what we are learning from the pandemic, and this shift to digital workplaces, is that the way we interact with each other needs to be done with intention. It’s not enough to give someone access to a Google Drive folder titled “Onboarding” and let them have at it.
Consciously think ahead about setting up your new hires for success—both in terms of the work itself and in terms of their human experience.